“Plucked from my mother’s breast, I grew up absolutely ignorant of my Aboriginal heritage.” In a single, almost glib phrase, Jack Charles sums up the his tragic young life and, in so doing, the tragic young lives of countless Aboriginal people. Happily for him, he found a new kind of family that, in many ways, may’ve been his salvation. “I do find a tribe of sorts: I luck across the new theatre mob.”
As a reviewer, critic, call me what you will, one tries to remain detached; to at least delude oneself and, with a little luck, others, by way of this apparent concession to objectivity. It’s an almost mandatory conceit. But I couldn’t help myself. A latecomer to the production, having missed it, a while back, at Belvoir, I was so taken by Jack Charles v The Crown, or, more particularly by Jack himself, I felt moved to give him a hug. I stopped short of such intimacy, but I did shake his hand and tell him what I earnestly feel: that he is one of the most charismatic performers I’ve ever seen on a stage.
Jack Charles the quintessential loveable rogue. The septuagenarian has been or is still an actor, musician, heroin addict, cat burglar, prisoner, elder and activist, born at Cummeragunja Station, on the Murray. What started as a communal utopia for Yorta Yorta people was turned into a virtual concentration camp, once the so-called Aboriginal Protection Board took over, in 1915. Being born September 5, 1943, Charles entered the fray at about the worst possible time. Residents had no freedom of movement. In fact, they were confined to the station. More distressing still, many of their relatives were sent away, Charles included.
Jack ended up at a boys’ home, in Box Hill, where he was the only Aboriginal. I say ended up, but this happened at just six months of age. “Plucked from my mother’s breast” is no poetic indulgence. But he wore his invidious status as a stolen generations child and years of abuse with incredible resilience, forgiveness and grace, co-founding Nindethana, Australia’s first-ever indigenous theatre group, at The Pram Factory, in 1971. The first production was Jack Charles Is Up And Fighting, so it seems as if a large circle was closed with the advent of Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Jack Charles v The Crown, in 2010.
The show, written by Charles and John Romeril, is currently at the leading edge of a large-scale regional tour, and I caught it at Glen Street. Emily Barrie’s sharply angular set symbolises, I suppose, a sharply angular life. Off to one side is the band: Phil Collings, percussion; Malcolm Beveridge, bass; Nigel Maclean, keys, guitar, violin and musical direction. Off to the other is a potter’s wheel, at which Jack is seated, much of the time, as he relates his story of fame and infamy, always in a good-natured, benign way. When one considers what he’s been through (to which he only but alludes) and the lingering effects it’s had (PTSD), his disposition stands as a triumph of equanimity over brutal reality. But any man who can find release in prison is, surely, no ordinary man.
The show begins with Charles potting, while scenes from the documentary Bastardy are projected above. It’s confronting seeing this incisive, lucid man shooting up, but none can argue with his contention he know what he’s doing and is no threat to anyone other than himself. And Charles appears so sanguine, on screen and off, it’s easy to forget the tragedy of a life no less lived, but not enriched in the way it might’ve been. After all, despite a heroin habit, Jack’s acting career is distinguished. In 1974, just a couple of years after Nindethana’s seminal startup, he played Bennelong, alongside a nascent Gulpilil, in Cradle of Hercules, for the Sydney Opera House’s opening season. (It was a better outcome than a couple of years before, when he auditioned for an indigenous role on television, but was rejected in favour of a Sri Lankan, because he didn’t have blue eyes.) And he’s been a part of other cultural landmarks. On screen, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Bedevil, Blackfellas and Tom White. On stage, Jack Davis’ No Sugar, for Black Swan Theatre, Perth. Just last year, Sydney Festival’s I Am Eora.
On the strength of his resume during stretches out of jail, one can only but imagine what he might’ve done, had he not spent so much time doing time. Then again, perhaps we wouldn’t have had Jack as he is now, for which we, if not he, would be very much the poorer. JC v The Crown doesn’t sting as much as Bastardy. It’s a more poetic telling, that merely alludes to Charles’ systematic looting of wealthy Melburnian homes, his sexual disposition, early abuses and life in prison. Perhaps this is the way Jack needs to tell it. Perhaps it’s the way he needs it told. Or at least wants it told. Perhaps it’s the only way this man, or any man, can psychologically survive his past.
Danny Pettingill’s lighting is kept low, as if to emulate the fragile, if warm candle of a life that might have burned incandescently had circumstances been different.
The musical one is a vital ingredient in Charles’ idiosyncratic, multi-mediated chronicle. The trio of musicians plays with subtlety and respect. They provide hauntingly beautiful segues, but ramp it up to become Jack’s backing band. When Jack sings, it’s with with an admixture of affection and irony. It comes with the territory: a black man steeped in white music. His voice is deep and as gravelly as loose bitumen in a cul-de-sac; (but with an unapologetically Aussie drawl attached). His clear baritone well suits a number like Deep River Blues, a traditional tune which could easily be the story of his life: ‘let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more; Lord, I got them deep river blues’. The song Connie Francis made her own, Who’s Sorry Now?, may or may not be a bitter parody of our tardiness in apologising to the Stolen Generations. It may be purely personal. Or pointedly political.
In The Pines is, most probably, a southern Appalachian (no one knows for certain) folk song that dates back at least as far as the 1870s, made famous by Leadbelly. It might be about a black girl shivering the whole night through, but I’ll warrant the odd black man has felt similarly cold, alone and afraid. Vagabond Lover isn’t political. it’s personal. Rudy Vallee’s 1929 hit may’ve lamented girls he once knew and loved, but the sentiment knows no gender.
Son Of Mine is a bluesy folk setting for an Oodgeroo Noonuccal poem and seems to be a call to Jack’s own mother.
My son, your troubled eyes search mine,
Puzzled and hurt by colour line.
Your black skin, soft as velvet shines;
What can I tell you, son of mine?
I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind;
I could tell you of crimes that shame mankind;
Of brutal wrong and deeds malign;
Of rape and murder, son of mine.
But I’ll tell you instead of brave and fine,
When lives of black and white entwine;
And men in brotherhood combine.
This would I tell you, son of mine.
His incongruous finale is Love Letters (In The Sand), a song inseparable from Pat Boone, a man who, among other priceless political postures, has asserted Barack Obama is ineligible to be president. It may be more innocent (after all, there’s no reason to have anything against songwriters, J. Fred Coots or (lyricists) Nick and Charles Kenny. But I can’t help but feel sharp pangs when I hear this proud Aboriginal man sing a song so much, through context, a symbol of that dirty word beginning with ‘a’, assimilation. Perhaps it’s the point. Or perhaps it’s just generic, whitefella, middle-class guilt. When one looks at what we’ve done to Jack Charles and what he, as a consequence, has done to himself, that’s entirely appropriate.
“I live in the hope that we’re all in works in progress: that things can change, as I’ve changed.” Jack Charles exceptionally engaging, well-told story is all his own. He has us spellbound as we sit around his campfire. In many ways, too, it’s the story of Australia. Just not the one we’re used to hearing.
The details: Jack Charles v The Crown will play on a national tour until August 18. Tickets on the venue website.